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Metal (Technical)

Fourteen years of silence

But it’s been 14 years of silence
It’s been 14 years of pain
It’s been 14 years that are gone forever and I’ll never have again

Yes, the lyrics of a Guns N Roses classic, and yes, also how long it feels to have been locked up for two weeks alone in my house due to South Africa’s coronavirus restrictions (we are not allowed out to go jogging, or even windsurfing).

But 14 years is also how long its been since I wrote about Free Software attempts to create an alternative to the then-dominant Skype.

At that time, the two candidates I looked at were Wengophone and Ekiga. Both didn’t cut it back then, and sadly neither ever did. Ekiga’s last release was in 2013, and Wengophone was rebranded as Qutecom in 2008 after the original sponsors, Wengo, handed over ownership to another party, and development stalled.

With both projects effectively dead, has another champion stepped forth?

Enter Jitsi, which began as a student project in 2003. The real game-changer was the introduction of WebRTC, which allowed Jitsi to morph from a desktop app into the modern Jitsi Meet, which essentially allows communication with the use of a browser only.

Initial WebRTC support was added in 2013, bringing us to today, where it takes nothing more than visiting meet.jit.si to start video calling with multiple people.

Jitsi is actually a number of projects. Jitsi Desktop is no longer supported by Jitsi, but there is a community effort to keep it going. However, the one getting most attention is Jitsi Meet. It’s a completely Free and Open Source video conferencing solution, fully encrypted, offering all the usual features such as chat and screen sharing. It’s possible to run your own dedicated Jitsi Meet instance, or to use one of the publicly available ones. The official Jitsi instance, https://meet.jit.si/, is available for anyone to use at no cost.

Jitsi is integrated into Zulip, a distributed Team Chat I use both at work with the MariaDB Foundation, and with Wikimedia South Africa.

So, how well does it work? The results have been mixed to far. We tried Jitsi a number of times in 2019, and while it was usable, voice quality was not as good as alternatives. Note that there’s a difference between 2-person calls, in which participants communicate via peer-to-peer (P2P) or calls with more than 2 people, which are made via the Jitsi Videobridge.

The instance on meet.jit.si uses soft moderation, where it assumes everyone is a responsible participant, and can mute others if they, for example, are talking loudly on another call and have left their mic on. This probably wouldn’t work in all contexts, with a lot of anonymous participants and the risk of someone kicking off the coordinator.

Moving forward to lockdown 2020. Everyone is rushing to move everything from tai chi classes to date nights online, and there’s been a scramble for solutions. Zoom, the proprietary video conference software, has probably been the biggest beneficiary. However, Zoom is not open source, and has been challenged on its privacy protection, as well as on its claim to to support end-to-end encryption.

Jitsi security is transparent, and Jitsi have released a statement on Jitsi Meet Security and Privacy if you want to know more.

This past weekend proved serendipitous for my Jitsi use. First, a meeting I was attending ended up using Jitsi Meet by accident. The video conferencing meeting wasn’t set up in advance, so, since we were already in Zulip, someone created a link to a meet.jit.si instance. I was late to the meeting, and a little reluctant to rely on it given previous negative experiences, but call quality was great with about eleven people participating.

Literally seconds after the conference ended, I got a message from someone else, asking what I knew about Jitsi, as they were keen to try it out. I gave them feedback, and we set up a small test, with multiple different devices, including laptop browsers, Android and Apple devices, and pushed it by activating video on all. It passed with flying colours.

Intrigued, I pinged meet.jit.si and got a better response time than with many other high profile, responsive sites, including Google.

So Jitsi look like they’ve ramped up their capacity. I’m keen to watch their progress, try them again, and quite possibly install my own dedicated instance.

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